At first glance, George Clooney’s credits as a writer-director — Good Night, and Good Luck., The Ides of March — and a producer —- Syriana, The American, Argo, etc. — don’t seem to have much in common, except a political edge and a sheen of old-Hollywood class. But in 2011, when Clooney was trying to find his next project with his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov, he picked out a subtle trend in his own work that he was eager to buck.
“I said, ‘You know, we tend to do a lot of cynical projects, and it would really be nice to do one where there wasn’t any cynicism in it,'” Clooney tells EW. “And we really didn’t have anything on the books that wasn’t that way also. [Laughs] That’s what we like.”
Luckily, Heslov had just picked up an airport copy of The Monuments Men, a 2009 nonfiction account of the allied soldiers and French citizens who rescued art that had been pillaged by the Nazis. The mix of true-life intrigue, daring adventures, and everybody-against-Hitler camaraderie struck Clooney as a perfect opportunity to make a thoroughly un-cynical WWII movie in the vein of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape.
Two years later (a mere blink of an eye in Hollywood development time), Clooney is ready to storm theaters with The Monuments Men (in theaters Dec. 18), a WWII adventure with a stellar cast that includes Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, and more. “It’s got stars in it. It’s got a big score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s got a lot of epic shots,” he says. “So it’ll remind you of all the war films from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s that we liked so much.”
Read on for an excerpt of EW’s interview with Clooney about The Monuments Men.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What convinced you that this story would make a good movie and not just a good book?
GEORGE CLOONEY: We knew the characters were interesting. We changed the names, obviously, because we’re not doing a documentary, and we wanted to be able to give these guys flaws. They were real people, and you don’t want to give real people flaws. So we changed the names so we could mess with them a little bit. We want there to be a little humor. We don’t want this to be a civics lesson. When Grant and I did Good Night, and Good Luck., we challenged anybody to come after anything we did that was inaccurate in that film, because every single person in that room wrote books about it. They were all great journalists, so we knew that we had covered that as accurately as we could from all angles. This is one where we thought, we’re not going to make a documentary. Any of those movies that were based on real stories that you’ve ever seen, they’re based on poetic license, and our poetic license [was] we wanted to let these guys have some flaws and have some fun. We wanted there to be a very serious subject matter. There are a lot of important issues at stake, including issues that still exist, [like] returning a lot of the stolen art that was owned by Jewish collectors that still hasn’t been returned. There was a lot of important stuff to talk about, but we wanted it to be fun and entertaining. You want to be able to laugh at a lot of the stuff, too.
So on a scale from Good Night, and Good Luck to Inglourious Basterds, how accurate did you try to be?
Listen, the good news is, 80 percent of the story is still completely true and accurate, and almost all of the scenes happened. Sometimes they happened with other characters, sometimes it happened in smaller dimension. But that’s moviemaking. We’re not killing Hitler in a movie theater. And I loved Inglourious Basterds. We’re landing at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. We’re not landing there when it was convenient for us to land there. We follow all the rules, we just made the characters more interesting, I think. Not that the real people weren’t interesting. It’s just that, you know, you’re not going to know if somebody had a drinking problem, and we kinda would like to have somebody with a drinking problem.
Are you in this movie because you enjoy directing yourself, or because you had to be in order to help sell it?
Honestly, as you can imagine, it really isn’t all that fun directing yourself, running back and forth to the monitors to see if you’re terrible or not. I’m still in the position where it helps to be in the movie. But I would also argue this is a movie about men who are past the age of people who would be going to the Army. … So it is a bunch of fish out of water. I’m 52 years old and don’t really look like I should be signing up for the Army any time soon, so it seemed like the right part for me to play.
Is this the biggest project you’ve undertaken as a director in terms of scope and budget?
Oh, by far. By double, really. This is a big old movie. We got a lot of tax rebates shooting in Germany and in England. We finished five days early and $5 million under budget — I’ve never not finished early or under budget, by the way — but it’s still a big budget. We land in Normandy. We’re in Paris. It’s a big movie.
Bill Murray is famously impossible to get in touch with — he’s kind of a white whale for lots of filmmakers. How did you get him in your movie?
Bill comes to my house every summer. We’re really good friends. We’re actually really close. I would consider him truly a very dear friend of mine. He was at the house last year, and I was talking about the movie. He would never say, “Hey, can I be in the movie?” But then I called him late last summer, early fall and said, “Look, I wrote this part for you. I know you’re impossible to hammer down about jobs.” He doesn’t have an agent, he doesn’t have a manager. Now he has a phone, which is helpful. And I just said, “I’d love for you to be in it, but it’s a four-month commitment, which is a big deal.” And he called me up and said, “Great, I’ll be there.” And he showed up. Honestly, this was just one of those amazing sets. John Goodman came up to me afterward and said it was the best experience he ever had in his life. We were having real weather problems. Germany was just — we started in early March hoping to have some snow, and it was snowing in mid-May. So we were really scrambling to get things done. And you’d see Bill and John [Goodman] picking up camera boxes with the crew and helping everybody move. And they were all coming to the sets on the days they weren’t working. It was really, it was just an incredibly warm, fun experience. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban wandering around [on set] in military uniforms is just one of the greatest sights you’ve ever seen.